Victoria Backer peers down the rows of shiny wine bottles, squinting at the awkwardly lit supermarket shelves when her eyes stop at a familiar name: a dark, tall bottle of Faustino. She knows that name well, it having been the red wine of choice while she spent her junior year abroad in Madrid, Spain.
Victoria is a Sr. Vice President at an international trade association in Washington, D.C. During her twelve years with the organization she has traveled extensively, including several countries in Central and South America where Spanish is spoken.
“It’s funny how life comes back around in circles at you. When I got my university degree in Latin American Development, I never thought much about how things would all pan out in my life.”
Choosing a College
When Victoria was selecting which colleges to apply to, her first thought was: I want to go where my friends are going. Most of her high school class was going to Ohio State or Ohio University (OU). Ohio State was too big and too close to home in Columbus, Ohio, but OU seemed interesting. At a college fair she walked by a man standing behind a table marked “American University” and she reached for a brochure, but he pulled it back and instead put out his hand as if to introduce himself, asking her what her interests in college were. Not really sure yet what she wanted to be when she grew up, Victoria replied with the generic catch-all “Business”. The recruiter replied that American wasn’t really a Business degree school and seemed to dismiss her with a vague excuse that he only had one brochure left. Annoyed, and wanting to know WHAT exactly American University was, she grabbed the brochure from his hand and walked away. Score! (She did later learn that American has an excellent business school.)
She applied to OU and Notre Dame, and American. Notre Dame replied never-so-graciously that she was too unqualified to ever enter their school and practically asked in the rejection letter why she’d even bothered applying, so when American, a high ranking school in Washington, DC, returned not only an acceptance letter but also a scholarship offer, Victoria felt vindicated that her good grades and hard work in high school had paid off.
Choosing a Major
Initially her inclination was to become a teacher, following in the footsteps of her mother, an English teacher. Victoria had been told by her high school teachers that she had a natural affinity towards Spanish, and thought she might become a Spanish teach. As college neared however, her love of Spanish abounded, but her self-awareness made it clear she was not cut out for teaching. So in college she declared her major to be International Studies - a program for which American University is world renowned - with a focus on Latin American Development. She took classes in economic development, language, literature, communications, and intercultural studies.
Other students in the curriculum told her that she should definitely take part in the Junior year study abroad program, a program for which American was renowned. The immersion would help complete her language skills, and experiencing firsthand the countries of which had only been seen in books and movies was an occasion not to be missed. She chose Spain.
“Even though I had spent all my focus on Latin America, I was able to justify my big dream to go to Europe as going to the ‘motherland’ where Spanish had originated.”
¡Buenos Días, señorita!
Victoria arrived in Madrid after her first trans-Atlantic flight and met up with the group leader while they all waited for other members coming from all over the United States. They took a bus into the heart of the city and she remembers being almost overwhelmed by just how big Madrid was - much more like New York City than her home town of Columbus, and nothing like Washington, DC.
“Madrid was massive - almost overwhelmingly so. The huge buildings seemed to almost hide the light and the entire city seemed teeming with people and cement. And, as I found out much soon enough, Madrid is a very, very expensive place to live.”
Her host, a thirty-something year old artist named Gabby, lived on the 2nd floor of an apartment building. She supplemented her income, as did her Aunt who lived in a larger apartment upstairs, by taking in host students and boarders in her three bedroom apartment. The rooms were tiny, which was good because it forced Victoria to go out into this new Spanish world. Gabby spoke no English, so the total language immersion process began immediately.
Befriending another host student who was staying in the upstairs apartment, “Ryn” (short for Katheryn), a funky girl from San Francisco who “looked like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction,” the two girls took off to explore the city. They found it to be a very “Euro” metropolis - fashionable people walking around showing off their clothes and styles, plentiful cafes along the boulevard that provided for excellent people watching, and clubs that opened late and closed at 6am. They discovered that they’d landed an enviable host location downtown near Plaza Mayor, in the heart of the city, and felt lucky not to have been stuck in the suburbs.
Exploring the city took some getting used to. “There is an entire subterranean world under the city of Madrid that made up its metro system. Imagine the longest escalator you can, going deep into the earth. Now imagine taking FOUR of these down to get to your train platform. But it was great - for a few pesetas (before the Euro) you could travel all day around the city.”
[The apartment was] tiny, which was good because it forced Victoria to go out into this new Spanish world. [Her host] spoke no English, so the total language immersion process began immediately.
The American University study abroad program was done in conjunction with a small, private university in Madrid located on the opposite side of the city. The classes were completely in Spanish, and although Victoria and Ryn both placed into advanced Spanish, the different accents of both the teachers and other students from all over the world made the days difficult to keep up and often exhausting. But she found that her Spanish speaking ability was getting better quickly and made for more enjoyable side excursions the classes took to explore the country.
Victoria’s parents had been all over Europe but not to Spain yet, so they combined a vacation to come and visit their daughter. Renting a car they drove north to Barcelona, which she enjoyed, even a bit more so than Madrid, as the city pace seemed a bit slower and there was more greenery. During their visit, Spain's high prices, especially in the bigger cities, surprised even her parents, who asked how she’d been surviving (“Often it was a choice for us as to whether we’d buy a bottle of wine or eat dinner - more often than not within our group of twenty-somethings wine was the winner,”) and they left her with a chunk of money when they departed.
After her parents left, she reflected on the past few months. There were a few unpolished parts to the semester abroad. “Once we were walking and got held up by this guy who was clearly higher than a kite, so much so that he couldn’t even see my purse which was around my shoulder that I was hiding behind my back. We threw some coins at him and were able to run away.” Drugs abounded, much like in many big cities especially where a perpetually high unemployment rate prevails. But none of these were enough to thwart her affection for Spain.
What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?
One day a group of State Department staffers came to talk to the students about their careers abroad. Many students would likely apply to work at the State Department, or the World Bank or the IMF, especially if they were focusing on up and coming developing countries. Victoria was excited for the talk, but State Department employees, much like the original recruiter from American University, seemed to do a better job of turning her off towards such a life by their complaints about their lives overseas. She crossed the State Department off her list.
Victoria returned to the States and worked for a summer as a waitress before finishing up her degree the following year. Now holding the precious paper from American's School of International Service with “International Studies - Latin American Development” major stamped in gold, she asked herself what before she’d always BEEN asked: What does one actually do with this degree?
She worked for a year in the restaurant industry, decompressing from school until she found that she was seeking intellectual stimulation from crossword puzzles. Putting herself out there, she attended a networking event and met an interesting person from the association who told her they had an entry-level position in which she might be interested.
Suddenly it all coalesced and her life had direction again. Victoria’s job now consists of a lot of travel, including several opportunities to go to Latin American countries where she has an opportunity to practice her Spanish and apply the lessons learned from her schooling.
Will Your Children Be Bilingual?
Victoria was now missing one more thing in her life. Having recently ended a long relationship, she felt ready to venture back into the dating pool. However, with her hectic travel schedule and heavy workload, living in Washington DC she wasn’t meeting a lot of eligible bachelors. Her mother encouraged her to try dating on the internet and so she half heartedly put up a profile on Match.com.
“I realize now that my trip to Madrid must have meant a lot to me because I put it into my online profile, even though it had been years since I was in college.” She emailed with a few people but nothing really clicked, until she got an email from an interesting guy named Nick who wrote to her that he too had attended his junior year abroad in Madrid, albeit a couple of years later, and wanted to compare notes.
They met for tapas and discovered they had a lot more in common than just a shared experience of a junior year aboard in Spain. Nick, a musician and Spanish teacher for learning disabled children, and Victoria were married on 7/7/07.
When asked if her Spanish is still important to her, Victoria replies, “Definitely. I need to keep speaking more of it because if you don’t, you start to lose it. Our children will be taught to be bilingual because it opens up a whole new world!” Victoria and Nick plan to return to Madrid one day to reminisce about their time abroad and rediscover the city that connected them.
Thank you Victoria, for sharing your Story with us.
Our Stories and pictures are the sole copyright of their Authors and may not be reprinted or used without their permission.
© 2009 by Kristen Kuhns and Story of My Life®